- Futbolera: A History of Women and Sports in Latin America by Brenda Elsey and Joshua Nadel
To counter current perceptions in Latin America, and beyond, that the popularity of women’s soccer is new, Brenda Elsey and Joshua Nadel have recovered the efforts of women soccer players, or futboleras, from national histories that ignored and, in some cases, intentionally erased their contributions to the development of the world’s most common national pastime. In addition to detailing women’s long history in soccer across Latin America, Elsey and Nadel demonstrate how women in the region challenged gender hierarchies that worked to restrict their participation in the nation to being beauties and mothers. Despite challenges such as collusion between policymakers and medical professionals, legal prohibition, family opposition, and negligence or sabotage by male officials, women organized and fostered relationships with one another and with supporters on and off the field.
The introduction offers a historical overview of the development of ideas about women’s bodies and sport, sexuality, and femininity, as Latin American nations focused on [End Page 496] improvement in the nineteenth century and consolidated through the early twentieth century. Case studies on Argentina, Chile, Brazil, and Mexico, along with glimpses of Costa Rica and El Salvador, offer overlapping narratives about women and physical exertion, the spread of women’s sports, the ways women engaged with and accessed soccer, and the challenges to their participation. Each case study could stand alone, which causes some repetition. However, the attention to detail in discussing national contexts, such as the top-down integration of women into sports programs in revolutionary Mexico (159–64) in contrast to the restrictions imposed by the Gétulio Vargas regime in Brazil after relative freedom (99–101), reveals distinctions across space and time that provide rich fodder for comparative studies.
Elsey and Nadel exemplify good historical scholarship by directly engaging with the ways that race and class combined with gender to shape official policy, public support, and the relative success of women’s football, while addressing tensions and contradictions in the historical record. They directly engage the classism in officials’ promotion of upper-class sports such as swimming and tennis as appropriate for Chilean women (41), for example. In Brazil, they show how the gradual racial integration that accompanied the professionalization of men’s football combined with the diffusion of the sport across lines of race and class in the women’s game to spark the backlash that led to the prohibition of women’s soccer in 1941 (93– 94). During more than 40 years of prohibition in Brazil (1941–83), women as different as club members and cabaret dancers organized games and tournaments for entertainment and for charity. The detailed description of these tournaments could be tedious but proved necessary to account for the messiness of biased media portrayals, distinct events and organizers, and even individual motivations for taking the field (116–18).
The role of sport in promoting—or in some cases undermining—women’s equality offers one of the most compelling threads for future research. Elsey and Nadel point to examples both in the educators who promoted girls’ sports across South America at the turn of the nineteenth century (17–18) and in the contrast that Chilean media drew between sportswomen, who allegedly understood their limits compared to men, and feminists who threatened the social order (38–40). While the media drew this distinction, Costa Rican futboleras proselytized the game during the 1950s (180–86) and Brazilian feminists in the 1980s pointed to their exclusion from the national sport as a symbol of inequity (133). These examples beg for further investigation into how sport and physical education, which, Elsey and Nadel show, often represented the state’s policing of citizens’ bodies, could become a means to freedom.
Elsey and Nadel have published a foundational text for Latin American history and for the histories of women and sport. Beyond the case studies they highlight, their work opens new lines for comparison with narratives of state...